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Introduction to the Scientific Study of Time

If I had an educational institution in which I could dictate the curriculum, I would have as requirements for the first year at least these two courses: “How to read a scientific paper” and “Understanding scales of time.” Of the former I will only say that, in our scientific civilization, every citizen needs to be able to read a scientific paper, so as not to rely exclusively on popularizations from journalists (perhaps I will write more on this later). The latter — understanding scales of time — is what concerns me at present. When I survey my own attempts to come to an understanding of the differing scales of time employed by the different sciences, I am struck by the slowness of my progress, but also by the importance of making progress. An organized and systematic attempt to give a unified exposition of the historical sciences and the time scales each entails would, I think, contribute significantly to making the various special sciences mutually intelligible and to encourage rigorous interdisciplinary research.

Just to finish the thought of a curriculum appropriate for the population of a scientific civilization, I might also consider not only a first year course in scientific method — many schools have required courses in statistics, which is a good step in this direction — but also a course in the philosophy of science and scientific methods, in order to give a comprehensive sense of the scientific enterprise and to engage students in thinking critically about the nature and limits of scientific knowledge. A scientific civilization that knows its own limits is less likely to fall victim to its own hubris than one in which these limits are not clearly understood.

Otto Neurath, W. V. O. Quine, Hans Reichenbach, and Imre Lakatos all used the idea of rational reconstruction.

Otto Neurath, W. V. O. Quine, Hans Reichenbach, and Imre Lakatos all used the idea of rational reconstruction.

The Idea of a Rational Reconstruction

The human experience of time originates in what Husserl called inner time consciousness, and human time as immediately experienced never extends beyond the lifetime of a single individual. Time consciousness, then, is severely constrained by human limitations. Human consciousness, however, not only consists in time consciousness, but also is the source of human reason, and human reason has sought to surmount the fleeting experience of time consciousness by extending time beyond the limitations of individual consciousness and the individual lifespan. This I will call the rational reconstruction of time.

Any duration of time beyond that of the human lifespan must be rationally reconstructed because it cannot be experienced directly. Extremely brief durations of time, such as are often involved in particle physics, also cannot be experienced directly, because they occur at a rate (or at such a microscopic scale) that cannot be distinguished by human sensory or cognitive faculties. These extremely brief durations of time also must be rationally reconstructed.

What is rational reconstruction? I won’t try to give a straight-forward definition, but instead I will try to give a sense of how philosophers have employed the idea of rational reconstruction. The idea originally came to prominence in the early twentieth century among logical positivists. Here is a passage from Otto Neurath that has become a point of reference in the origin of the idea of rational reconstruction:

“There is no way of taking conclusively established pure protocol sentences as the starting point of the sciences. No tabula rasa exists. We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials. Only the metaphysical elements can be allowed to vanish without trace.”

Otto Neurath, “Protocol sentences,” in Logical Positivism, edited by A.J. Ayer, Free Press, Glencoe, IL, 1959, pp. 199-208, there p. 201.

Neurath further developed his ship analogy in other essays:

“We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”

Otto Neurath, “Anti-Spengler,” in Empiricism and Sociology, edited by Marie Neurath and Robert S. Cohen, Dordrecht and Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1973, p. 199

Here the emphasis falls upon the exigency of keeping the ship afloat, which is not the central concern of the rational reconstruction of time, but it would be an interesting exercise to apply this idea to the cognitive framework we all employ, with the necessity being active and effective agency in the world.

Quine adopted the analogy of rebuilding a ship at sea from Neurath. In his Word and Object, Quine quoted Neurath’s ship passage as an epigraph to the book and develops the theme of reconstruction throughout, extending Neurath’s positivist-inspired analogy more generally to philosophy, giving the idea contemporary currency in analytical philosophy.

Hans Reichenbach made the idea of rational reconstruction fully explicit:

“When we call logic analysis of thought the expression should be interpreted so as to leave no doubt that it is not actual thought which we pretend to analyze. It is rather a substitute for thinking processes, their rational reconstruction, which constitutes the basis of logical analysis. Once a result of thinking is obtained, we can reorder our thoughts in a cogent way, constructing a chain of thoughts between point of departure and point of arrival; it is this rational reconstruction of thinking that is controlled by logic, and whose analysis reveals those rules which we call logical laws.”

Hans Reichenbach, Elements of Symbolic Logic, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948, p. 2

Reichenbach has a footnote to this passage saying that “rational reconstruction” was introduced by Carnap, and indeed Carnap has a typically technical exposition of rational reconstruction in his Pseudoproblems in Philosophy (a bit long to quote here). Carnap’s interest in rational reconstruction seems to be due to the great influence that Russell’s philosophy had on Carnap, and it would be an interesting investigation to compare Russell’s conception of logical construction (in the parsimonious sense that Russell uses this term) and Carnap’s conception of rational reconstruction.

Imre Lakatos made extensive use of the idea of rational reconstruction in a more comprehensive context than the more narrowly logical exposition of Reichenbach. Lakatos applied rational reconstruction to the history of science, which is essentially what I am suggesting here:

“The history of science is always richer than its rational reconstruction. But rational reconstruction or internal history is primary, external history only secondary, since the most important problems of external history are defined by internal history. External history either provides non-rational explanation of the speed, locality, selectiveness, etc. of historic events as interpreted in terms of internal history; or, when history differs from its rational reconstruction, it provides an empirical explanation of why it differs. But the rational aspect of scientific growth is fully accounted for by one’s logic of scientific discovery.”

Imre Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Philosophical Papers Volume I, Cambridge, 1989, “History of science and its rational reconstructions,” p. 118

A generalization of the point Lakatos makes in this passage would not be limited to the history of science: we can say that history simpliciter is always richer than its rational reconstruction, but the important problems for external history are set by the rational reconstruction of history. And, I think, we will find this to be the case; rational reconstructions of time point us to the most important problems for the historical sciences.

Cronus and Rhea, figures in one the central cosmogonic myths of classical antiquity.

Cronus and Rhea, figures in one the central cosmogonic myths of classical antiquity.

Mythology: the First Rational Reconstruction of Time

Mythology is the first “big history.” By placing human lives and human actions in a mythological context, human beings are immediately and personally related to a cosmos of enormous scope, far beyond anything to be encountered in the lives of most individuals. In order to achieve this scope, experiences had to be pooled, and a composite, richer experience draw from an inventory wider and deeper than the experiences of any one individual. This is the essence of the rational reconstruction of time, which was later taken to much greater lengths in subsequent human development.

In retrospect, mythological cosmologies are ethnocentric and parochial, usually bound to the biome of a given biocentric civilization, but in their time they constituted the uttermost and outermost reach of human reason, projecting human concerns into the heavens and beneath the Earth. Mythological cosmologies were as comprehensive as they could be at the time, given the limitations of human knowledge under which mythologies took shape.

While mythology is a rational reconstruction of the human condition, we can also can see the rational reconstruction of mythology itself when philosophically-minded later readers of mythology attempted to further bring the mythological cosmos into line with the increasingly rational order of human civilization. Plato famously wanted to ban all poets from his ideal republic, because the stories that poets tell about the gods are not always edifying, and Plato’s republic aspired to exercising absolute control over mythic narrative, to the point of inculcating a “noble lie” intended to reconcile each segment of the population with its social position. That is to say, mythology was to be employed as a tool of social control, which has always been a danger for historical thought.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus, the Father of History

Herodotus of Halicarnassus, the Father of History

Classical History: the Second Rational Reconstruction of Time

The distinctive Greek gift for and contribution to rationality was expressed not only in philosophy and the earliest science, but also in works of art — the Parthenon is a monument to rationality, among other things — and literature. The Greeks invented the literary genre of history, and, once they invented history, disagreed on whether it was an art or a science. This was a perennial problem of classical historiography, but is no longer a burning question today, as the advent of scientific historiography has changed the terms of the debate in historiography.

It is at least arguable, however, that scientific historiography was always implicitly present from the origins of history in Herodotus and Thucydides, but no science existed in the time of the ancient Greeks that could realize this potential. The original Greek term used for the title of Herodotus’ The Historiesἱστορία — means inquiries, i.e., Herodotus conceived his work as an inquiry in the past, and so was part and parcel of the Greek imperative of rationality. Indeed, rationalism applied to the apparent sequence of historical accidents that is the past might well be considered the non plus ultra of rationalism. However, the method of Herodotus’ inquiries was not scientific (in the Greek sense) or logical, but rather narrative.

The extent to which history in this classical sense (one might say, in the Herodotean sense) truly is a rational reconstruction, and not a mere recounting of facts, i.e., a chronicle, is revealed by Arthur Danto’s study of the logic of narrative sentences in his Narration and Knowledge (and which logic of narrative I previously mentioned in Our Intimacy with the Past). Even the most complete account of events as they happen cannot express how the meanings of earlier events are changed by later events, which provide the context and perspective for interpreting earlier events. While Danto did not say so, the mirror image of this insight applies to the future, so that the present is given meaning in relation to its expected outcome, and expected outcomes are valued on the basis of present experience (and unexpected outcomes are also judged in terms of their divergence from expectation). This would be a theme that Big History would begin to explore, although not in these terms.

What we traditionally call history (i.e., Herodotean history) is simply that fragment of the whole of the temporal continuum narratively reconstructed from human records. We can understand this by a sensory analogy: we know from study of the electromagnetic spectrum that human eyes are able to see only a small portion of the EM spectrum. Beyond the abilities of human eyes, pit vipers can sense the infrared beyond the red end of the visible EM spectrum, and insects can sense ultraviolet beyond the violet end of the visible EM spectrum. Beyond the capacity of naturally evolved eyes to sense EM radiation, we can employ technology to detect radio waves, x-rays, and the rest of the EM spectrum. What human beings have called history is like the small “visible” portion of the EM spectrum: it is the small portion of the temporal continuum “visible” to human beings. The narrative method of traditional historiography allows us to reconstruct just so much history in human terms and to make it understandable to us.

The study of ice cores is an important source of data for scientific historiography.

The study of ice cores is an important source of data for scientific historiography.

Scientific Historiography: the Third Rational Reconstruction of Time

Already in classical antiquity we can see the scientific spirit at work in Ptolemy’s Almagest. Ptolemy wrote as a scientist, and not, like Herodotus, as an historian. As his science is now archaic, it is read only for its historical interest today, but in Ptolemy we can glimpse, in embryo, as it were, the scientific method in its characteristic attempt to transcend human limitations and the constraints of the human condition. In the Almagest Ptolemy compares his observations with the best observations of earlier writers, especially Hipparchus, even noting the margin of error inherent in observations due to the construction and position of instruments (cf. especially Book Seven on the fixed stars). In his chapter on determining the length of the year (Book Three, I), Ptolemy is always trying to get the oldest observations to compare with his observations, noting that nearly 300 years had elapsed between Hipparchus’ observations and this own, and reaches further back into Egyptian sources for data 600 years prior.

There is a difference in degree, but not a difference in kind, between these observations of Ptolemy and Freeman Dyson’s discussion whether the laws of nature change over time in “Time without end: Physics and Biology in an Open Universe” (1979). Dyson discusses what has since come to be called the “Oklo Bound,” based on the radioactive byproducts of the naturally-occurring Oklo fission reactor in Gabon. Dyson wrote:

“The fact that the two binding energies remained in balance to an accuracy of two parts in 1011 over 2.109 yr indicates that the strength of nuclear and Coulomb forces cannot have varied by more than a few parts in 1018 per year. This is by far the most sensitive test that we have yet found of the constancy of the laws of physics. The fact that no evidence of change was found does not, of course, prove that the laws are strictly constant. In particular, it does not exclude the possibility of a variation in strength of gravitational forces with a time scale much shorter than 1018 yr. For the sake of simplicity, I assume that the laws are strictly constant. Any other assumption would be more complicated and would introduce additional arbitrary hypotheses.”

Dyson, like Ptolemy, was employing the best scientific measurements and observations of his time in the attempt to transcend his time, though while Ptolemy’s rudimentary methods spanned a few hundred years, science can now comprehend a few billion years. The transcendence of immediately experienced human time by scientific scales of time is the rational reconstruction of time made possible by the historical sciences, and, by extension, for scientific historiography.

While the spirit of science is as old as classical antiquity, and it emerged from the same Greek world that gave us Herodotus and the Greek historians following Herodotus, scientific historiography did not begin to come into its own until the nineteenth century. Besides Ptolemy there were a few other notable intimations of scientific historiography to come, as in Nicholas Steno’s laws of superposition in geology. The historical sciences began to realize their potential in the geology and biology of the nineteenth century in the geology of Lyell and the biology of Darwin. Within a few years’ of the appearance of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Lyell Published Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man, which reconceptualized humanity in the context of geological time. Later in the nineteenth century, scientific dating techniques such as varve chronology (varves are annual deposits left by melting glaciers) and dedrochronology (tracing overlapping tree rings backward in time) began to give exact dates for historical events long before human records. Scientific archaeology (as opposed to mere treasure hunting) began about the same time.

Scientific historiography reconstructs time employing the resources of the scientific method, which made the reconstruction of time systematic. As long as science continues to develop, and is not allowed to drift into stagnancy, scientific historiography can continue to add depth and detail to this historical record. Scientific historiography extended the narrative tradition of history beyond texts written by human beings to the text of nature itself; the whole of the world became the subject of historical inquiry in the form of the historical sciences, which reconstructed a narrative of Earth entire, and eventually also of the universe entire, which latter became the remit of Big History.

big history montage

Big History: the Fourth Rational Reconstruction of Time

Big history takes a step beyond the initial scope of scientific historiography, not merely narrating human history on the basis of what science can tell us where texts are silent, but in going beyond human history to a history of the universe entire, in which human history is contextualized. As I write this the 3rd IBHA conference is about to take place next weekend in Amsterdam, and I am a bit disappointed that I won’t be going, as I enjoyed the 2nd IBHA conference I attended a couple of years ago (cf. Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3).

The approach of big history did not come out of nowhere, but was building since the discovery of “deep time” in Steno’s laws of superposition, but especially the geology of James Hutton, then Charles Lyell, and later yet geological time scales brought to the study of life by Darwin. Science that dealt in millions of years and then billions of years slowly acclimated informed human minds of the possibilities for science completely freed of anthropocentric constraints. A hundred years ago, in the early twentieth century, we began to glimpse the size and the age of the universe entire, extending scientific scales of time beyond the Earth and the inherent geocentric constraints of human thought.

How can a human being, starting from the human experience of time, ever come to understand the life and evolution of stars, galaxies, and the largest and oldest structures of the cosmos? This grandest of historical reconstructions is possible because the universe is large and old and diverse. We cannot witness the formation of our own sun or our own planet, but we can look out into the universe and see stars in the process or formation and planetary systems in the process of formation (i.e., protoplanetary disks). If we are sufficiently diligent in surveying the cosmos, we can put together an entire sequence of the evolution of stars and planetary systems, drawn from different individual instances all today at different stages of development. While processes of stellar formation and planetary system development take place on a scale of time that human beings can never directly perceive, our reconstruction of these processes can be made comprehensible to us in this way. And when we are able to travel among the stars and to study life on many different worlds, we will be able engage in the astrobiological equivalent to this cosmological seriation, and similarly so with civilization and other forms of emergent complexity.

Big history provides a comprehensive context in which all of these scientific seriations of time scales beyond human perception can be concatenated in a single grand reconstruction of the whole of time as it is accessible to contemporary science. And, on the basis of contemporary science, Big History represents the culmination and non plus ultra of scientific historiography. Beyond the limits of empirical evidence methods other than science must be employed.

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Formal Historiography: the Fifth Rational Reconstruction of Time

The fifth rational reconstruction of time is a rational reconstruction that has not yet been constructed, but we can see, on the horizon, that this is the natural teleology of the development described above. As inductive empirical science matures and grows in sophistication, there is an increasing tendency both to rigor and to integration with other physical theories. Sometimes the imperative to greater rigor is not historically obvious, as an empirical science may remain static in terms of its formal development for a long time — sometimes for centuries. But the need for formal rigor is eventually felt, and some clever soul somewhere has an “A ha!” moment that shows the way to a formal surrogate for a previously intuitive approach. This will be true for historiography as well.

There is a contemporary school of thought — cliodynamics — attempting to transform history into an empirical, testable science, employing numerical methods and quantification. In the bigger picture, scientific historiography more generally speaking adopts the formal methods of the other empirical sciences, and this increases the rigor of historical thought over time, but these efforts remain within the paradigm of inductive empirical science. When history is eventually formalized, it will follow the trajectory of earlier empirical sciences. First the work of scientific historiography must come to maturity, and then we will be in a position to engage in a formal scrutiny of the assumptions made in scientific historiography. Some of these assumptions will be common to other empirical sciences (in the traditional Euclidean language, these will be common notions, or axioms, that are not specific to some particular subject matter) while other assumptions will be unique to scientific historiography and will thus constitute the differentia of historical thought (postulates in Euclid’s terminology).

Most working scientists in daily practice do not employ fully formalized reasoning because it is cumbersome and slow, and, in fact, inductive empirical science can continue in its traditional methodology almost untouched by formalization. There are axiomatizations of general relativity, for example (cf., e.g., “An Axiomatization of General Relativity,” Richard A. Mould, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 103, No. 3, Jun. 15, 1959, pp. 485-529), but this is not the way that most physics is done today. One might think of formalization as the highest level of emergent complexity yet attained within cognitive astrobiology, with mythology, narrative history, scientific historiography, and Big History all as earlier emergents in a sequence of emergents with the later supervening upon the earlier. All of these forms of human thought about time will continue to develop — they will not be replaced or superseded by formal historiography — but it will be formal historiography that moves the discipline of history forward into the terra incognita of time.

With the existence of hard limits to the historical sciences as represented by prediction walls and retrodiction walls, on what material will formal historical proceed? Let me attempt to give a sense of the kind of formal reasoning that can extend formal historiography beyond the constraints of observation and empiricism.

It has become commonplace for physicists to assert that, since time began with the big bang, that it is nonsensical to ask what preceded the big bang. This is, we must honestly admit, a rather tortured piece of reasoning (not to mention circular). While it is true that the big bang constitutes a retrodiction wall beyond which contemporary science cannot pass, and so is a boundary to empirical science, it is not an absolute boundary to human reason. To assert that there is nothing beyond or before the big bang is a perfect demonstration of the fact that human reason does not stop at empirical prediction walls. While it is a perfectly intellectually respectable claim to assert that there was nothing before the big bang, it is not a scientific claim, it is a philosophical claim. And, by the same token, it is a perfectly respectable claim to assert that there is something beyond the observable universe, including something before the big bang, but that this is inaccessible to contemporary science. Again, this is not a scientific claim, but a philosophical claim. In this sense, both of these claims are on the level, as it were.

There is no conceivable form of scientific research that could verify the existence of nothingness prior to the big bang. Philosophically, I would assert that producing evidence of nothingness is ipso facto impossible, and hence ruled out a priori, hence ruling out any scientific claim of nothing preceding the big bang. (Either that, or “nothingness” means something very different for the physicist as compared to the philosopher. And this is most likely the case: the two are talking — if indeed they ever talk — at cross-purposes.) The recognition of a nothingness outside or before the retrodiction wall presented by the big bang can be further illuminated by thought experiments proposed by Sydney Shoemaker and W. H. Newton-Smith that demonstrate the possibility of empty time (I will not attempt to give a summary of these thought experiments here; the reader is urged to consult these authors directly; cf. Newton-Smith’s The Structure of Time, II, 4, pp. 19-24).

These are the materials with which a formal historiography will grapple, along with the concerns of what I have called infinitistic historiography and infinitistic cosmology. In this way, formal historiography will transcend even the grand reconstruction of the whole of time accessible to contemporary science that I mentioned above in connection with Big History.

While the accidents of history might seem to be the last place that anyone would look for fertile ground for the formalization of knowledge, history, I think, will surprise us in this respect. And the surprising applicability of formal methods to history will constitute yet another rational reconstruction of time.

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Euclid as imagined by Jusepe de Ribera -- Euclid was instrumental in the origins of formal thought, which began with geometry, and has since been applied to many disciplines but has not yet transformed historiography.

Euclid as imagined by Jusepe de Ribera — Euclid was instrumental in the origins of formal thought, which began with geometry, and has since been applied to many disciplines but has not yet transformed historiography.

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Three Addenda

Addendum on Rational Reconstructions of Time

Placeholders for Null-Valued Time

An Alternative Formulation of Rational Reconstructions of Time

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rational reconstructions of time

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Saturday


Manifest Destiny personified

In my last post, Taking Responsibility for Our Interpretations, I wanted to emphasize how both individuals and political wholes (social groups) seek to vacate their responsibilities by cloaking them in a specious facticity, so that an interpretation of the world is treated as if it were something more than or other than a mere interpretation. One of the most common ways of doing this in relation to history is to formulate an interpretation of history, whether personal or social, as “destiny.”

We are all painfully familiar with loaded terms from historiography like “destiny,” “progress,” “inevitability,” and the like. We find them impartially on the left and the right. In fact, the most strongly ideologically motivated institutions make a practice of most grievously distorting history to fit a particular model that flatters the ideology in question. All one need do is recall the utopian plans of communism and Nazism from the previous century to understand the extent to which visions of the past and the future supposedly inherent in the very nature of things issue in dystopian consequences.

I realize that I’ve engaged with this issue recently in slightly different terms. In Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone I formulated two principles that I called Gibbon’s Principle and Sartre’s Principle. Gibbon’s Principle is that the authority of a social whole is inalienable. Sartre’s Principle is that the authority of the individual is inalienable. In other words, even if a social whole or an individual engages in the pretense of surrendering its autonomy, this is an act of bad faith (mauvaise foi) because the social whole or the individual retains the autonomy to act even as it denies this autonomy to itself. Gibbon’s Principle as applied to history means taking responsibility for the history of social wholes; Sartre’s Principle as applied to history means taking responsibility for the individual’s personal history.

It may seem a bit incredible to compare the benign Eurozone to malevolently utopian visions like communism or Nazism, but the narratives employed to defend the Euro — the inevitability of European integration and its historical irreversibility — are on a par with inherentist narratives that make claims upon history that cannot be sustained. In Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone I compared the attempt to make the Eurozone permanent to the Cuban attempt to incorporate its present socio-political regime as a permanent feature of its constitution, which latter I had discussed in The Imperative of Regime Survival.

It is significant in this connection that the US experienced a traumatic challenge to its national claims of permanence that took the form of the Civil War. Had I been alive in the 1860s, I suspect that I would have argued that it was utter folly to craft a national constitution that had provisions for adding to the territories of the United States but no provisions for the peaceful succession of regions that no longer desired to be part of the US. Because there were no peaceful provisions for succession, the succession took the form of militant succession, which was answered by militancy on the part of those who believed the Union to be indissoluble.

So am I arguing that the Confederates were right? That would certainly put me in an awkward position. If the South had peacefully succeeded from the Union, it is entirely possible that the Balkanization of North American would have yielded a map of minor states such as we find in South America (after the breakup of Gran Colombia), though it is equally possible that the fractured Union would have left only two successor states in North America. Counterfactuals are difficult to argue with any kind of confidence precisely because inherentist and essentialist conceptions of history almost never provide an adequate narrative of what happens.

Regardless of what might have happened, what did in fact happen is the the unity of the US was imposed by force of arms, more or less guaranteeing the US a continental land empire without any power able to seriously challenge the US in the Western hemisphere. This likely resulted in the US repeatedly intervening in the internecine quarrels of Europe until the US itself took responsibility for European security, eventually winning the Cold War and becoming the dominant world power. None of this was inevitable, but it has been given the air of inevitability by nationalistic narratives of American exceptionalism.

There is a sense in which the Cuban narrative of a permanent revolutionary government and the Eurozone narrative of indissolubility seek to emulate the apparently successful indissolubility revealed by the US national experience. Who, after all, would not want to be the exception to the mutability of all human things?

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Tuesday


After having written, just a few days ago, about declensionism as the possibly now-dominant narrative in the US (in From American Exceptionalism to American Declensionism), it seems a bit odd to take up the topic of whether happy days are here again, but I have been noticing subtle rhetorical shifts in the media that suggest that, no matter the pessimism and cynicism of the moment, Americans are always willing (if not eager) to believe in a better tomorrow. Reinvention — personal, institutional, civic, national — is one of the central themes of the American narrative, and this includes the continual reinvention of a brighter tomorrow.

There is a certain elusive nostalgia in the predictions of plentiful natural gas from shale (has anyone yet called it “power too cheap to meter?”), the revitalization of Rust Belt-era cities, and the return of manufacturing jobs to the US. The fact that these strategic trends are all based in fact does not mean that they will come together to form a coherent future, but it is (or would be) easy to put these trends together and draw conclusions from them — it is (mostly) a pleasant scenario. However, for starters, these strategic trends — all of which, I will admit without hesitation, have a clear basis in contemporary events — are mutually incompatible.

Thomas P.M. Barnett of Wikistrat has been particular assiduous on reporting both the potential for shale gas and the return of manufacturing to US shores, and in fact combining the two by considering the industrial development that will follow from the large scale commercial exploitation of fracking to extract natural gas from shale. Dr. Barnett has posted a stream of loosely related items on this, such as The coming American industrial renaissance, States and localities fighting over hydrofracturing drilling
, The displacement effect of all that new US natural gas, and North American energy boom attracting Chinese investment, inter alia.

Dr. Barnett has not been alone in predicting a revitalization of American prospects based on a conventional outlook on economic prosperity. I recently listened to the book $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better by Christopher Steiner, and while parts of this book read like “peak oil” apocalypticism, as the subtitle indicates, the author believes much good will come out of increasing unaffordable fossil fuels. He predicts the revitalization of failing metropolitan areas like Detroit, as well as the return of manufacturing jobs to the US because of the expense of transported manufactured goods when transportation costs rise sharply.

One of the most difficult things about prediction and futurism (and futurism must here be understood as a coherent group of predictions definitive of a particular way of life) is that the world is complex and interconnected, while the human mind has difficulty keeping three or four things in its focus at the same time. Both because of the practical realities of thinking and writing, which are processes that take place in time and therefore are “strung out,” as it were, rather than found together simultaneously, our narratives of necessity give a sequential account of things. This comes through very clearly in $20 Per Gallon, which exemplifies this diachronic imperative in contrast to the synchronic reality of parallel and simultaneous development. The author treats in sequence consequences of high fuel prices that will happen across the board, simultaneously, and as these consequences occur simultaneously, then will influence each other, with the result being quite beyond our powers of prediction. Complex adaptive systems are continually adapting to each other, and, in the process of adapting, changing themselves and changing the context in which all other complex adaptive systems adapt.

As I attempted to show in Futurism Without Predictions, the approach to futurism that is likely to tell us what the future is going to be like, rather than picking and choosing particular items and there, but getting the whole completely wrong, is identifying the master strategic trend, and the master strategic trend is that which not only becomes the dominant strategic trend but also that strategic trend that is intrinsically capable of subordinating the greatest number of coherent and mutually compatible (i.e., in Leibnizean terms, compossible) strategic trends.

Traditional futurists have often defended their predictions (and the predictions of past futurists, thereby to shore up the credentials of the discipline generally speaking) by pointing to individual items that were predicted and which where eventually built — submarines, helicopters, the videophone, and so forth. The problem with this strategy of rationalizing predictions (a problem that we often feel but do not always know how to express) is that particular instances of technology predicted and then built do not add up to the feeling that futurists have given of the future. It is not only that we aren’t wearing unisex leotards, going to work in flying cars, and getting all our nutrition from a single pill we take in the morning, it is that our world does not look like and does not feel like the world of the Jetsons.

To get a proper feeling for what the world is like, and what it may be like in the future, we need to stop thinking in terms of individual predictions and start thinking in terms of dominant strategic trends that shape the overall character of life in a particular historical era. In other words, we need to look at the big picture. And in the big picture, some of the obvious trends of today will be in conflict, and will not come together (cannot come together) into any kind of synthesis that will define the future.

It is pretty obvious that at least some manufacturing jobs will return to the US. As poorer countries become wealthier, it will no longer be cheaper to make things overseas and ship them back to the US. That’s pretty simple; it’s not rocket science. But the danger of thinking in terms of a US manufacturing economy is the perverse fetishism of industry that one often finds in popular writings on economics. Manufacturing is no more an answer to the economic conundra of the present than is the idea that everyone will become a hedge fund manager and work in financial services. Any real and vital economy has many sectors, and the interaction of these sectors in the marketplace is what makes an economy thrive. So don’t expect to get a job at 18 making widgets at the local factory, planning to retire in 30 years on a full pension. Those days are over. Longevity killed that dream. Ironically, we have to work longer and harder because we are healthier and live longer. This is an example of unpredictable consequences of simultaneous developments.

It is also pretty obvious that new fracking techniques are going to allow for the extraction of natural gas from shale at a level that was not previously possible. But natural gas is a fossil fuel, and although it certainly burns cleaner than coal, if the world economy expands dramatically by cranking up natural gas, we will be digging ourselves deeper into a problem that may have truly radical unpredictable consequences — like having to abandon the world’s major coastal cities because they are all under water due to rising sea levels.

Furthermore, the rentention of an economy based on cheap and widely available fossil fuels will mean that the kind of forced urbanization imagined in Christopher Steiner’s book will not occur. It is a relatively simple matter to convert cars, trains, and planes to run on one fossil fuel or another, and LNG is only marginally less convenient that oil. If natural gas is cheap and plentiful, LNG will be cheap and plentiful, and travel by private car and by airline will continue to be routine. And if the problem of hypersonic engines can be practically tamed, the world may become more internationally knit together, not less.

Make no mistake, increasing urbanization is one of the central strategic trends of our time, and we can expect it to continue. But it is likely to continue along the model of what Joel Garreau called “edge cities,” as well as sprawling, car-enabled suburbs that many people claim to disdain but which continue to grow in population.

Whether or not the trend is your friend, it is certainly your future. And the tone and feeling of the future will be set by that strategic trend that drives, shapes, and influences all the other strategic trends — either by magnifying them or by rendering them irrelevant.

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Tuesday


The pages of Foreign Policy magazine are once again becoming agitated by the question of American decline. There is A Nation of Spoiled Brats: Financial Times columnist Ed Luce explains the real reason for American decline an interview by David Rothkopf in Foreign Policy dated 16 April 2012; a few days before this there was The American decline debate by Clyde Prestowitz, while for some background we have from last January Think Again: American Decline, This time it’s for real by Gideon Rachman. The latter, Gideon Rachman, also writes for the Financial Times, which also occasionally hosts pieces on alleged American decline.

I have written before about my distaste for declensionism, so I am not simply going to repeat my arguments the continuing vitality of US institutions and ambitions. For this, you can see The Revolution Without the Revolution and Expanding on a Comment. I will also like to point out the declensionism can be considered a special case of apocalypticism, so that arguments against apocalypticism (as, for example, in The End of the End of the World) also apply, mutatis mutandis, to declensionism.

Of course, one might accept or reject both exceptionalism and declensionism; the two are not mutually exclusive. One might well maintain that the US is unique and that it is now in decline — in fact, I believe that this is the position of many if not most on the political right — as one might equally well maintain that the US is not unique and not in decline (something closer to my own perspective). However, despite the possibility of simultaneously maintaining or rejecting exceptionalism and declensionism, what is interesting about the current spate of declensionist commentary is the shift in narrative that seems to have taken place.

At one time, American exceptionalism was the dominate narrative in understanding the US and its position in the world. I now wonder if we have turned the corner so that American declensionism has become, or is becoming, the dominant narrative by which society at large attempts to understand the US and its position in the world. Having the exceptionalist or the declensionist perspective matters, because each plays into a familiar context of related narratives. That is to say, one idea leads to another, so once you get started down a particular narrative path, the internal logic of the narrative is likely to guide your thinking more than any evidence or reasoning.

The American exceptionalist is likely to say something like, “Sure, things aren’t so good right now, but they’ll turn around; good ol’ American know-how will see to to that. And when things do turn around everyone will see that America isn’t just another country in the world, it is different from all the others, and it can continue to defy the critics and stymy its enemies, and it always will.”

The American declensionist likely to say something like, “No country can forever defy the laws of nature or society; it is time for simple realism and pragmatism in facing up to the fact of America’s finite resources. We need to reassess our position in the world and adopt more appropriate horizons for our actions, learn to learn our lessons, and avoid the kind of overreach that might make things even worse. Every empire in history has eventually joined that of Ozymandias, and we must prepare for the same.”

As I wrote above, I have little sympathy for the declensionists, who are quite taken with their own wisdom in soberly recognizing what they take to be the limits of US power and ambition. The declensionists are smug and self-satified in their own self-defined ghetto — but no more so than the exceptionalists. In fact, this is precisely what these two narratives — the exceptionalist and the declensionist — have in common: their parochial outlook. Both the jingoistic promoter of exceptionalism and the shrill prophet of declension are so wrapped up in their idea of American that this idea comes to supplant the reality. It is this very parochial outlook that is the true danger to the American experiment.

However, if I had to craft my own declensionist narrative, it would not look anything like the stock, off-the-shelf accounts of American decline. If there has been an American “decline” it is because the political class of the US does not believe in the Enlightenment ideals that were instrumental in constituting the US political system. It is not that the political class is actively opposed to Enlightenment ideals, but more a matter of disconnect and incomprehension. It wouldn’t take much to acquaint any intelligent individual with the Enlightenment tradition, but this is not being done. Without an understanding of Enlightenment ideals, there is political drift. The politically expedient takes precedence over all over considerations. With political drift, there is tension between competing visions of what ought to be taking place instead of drift. .

Even if the US political class could be acquainted with the Enlightenment tradition that gave us our constitution and out institutions, it is very likely that they wouldn’t know what to do with this understanding. How does one put Enlightenment ideals into practice in the 21st century?

This is why is probably better to speak in terms of political evolution rather than declension. The world changes, and we must change with it. Hopefully we can remain true to our ideals in the midst of change, but that isn’t always possible. Sometimes you must reach out for new ideals.

The Roman political system survived in one form or another from the founding of the city of Rome until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. That is a run of almost 2,000 years. The Roman Empire did not remain true to the ideals of the Roman Republic, and the Byzantine Empire did not remain true to the ideals of the Roman Empire. This exemplifies what I have called historical viability. If the American political experiment is to be historically viable, it too will undergo changes as profound as those experienced by any long-lived institution.

With this in mind, we can observe that the narrative shift from American exceptionalism to American declensionism is not evidence of defeatism or pessimism or decline, but rather evidence of American historical viability. As the American self-image is able to change from exceptionalism to declensionism, this change facilitates other forms of change, so that the American experiment is changing and adapting to changed times, and in so doing demonstrating its historical viability.

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Sunday


There is an ancient parable from India about several blind men who encounter an elephant. The story is well known in many different versions, in all of which the blind men disagree as the nature of the animal — one touches its leg and says that an elephant is like a tree; another touches its ear and says that an elephant is like a fan; another touches its trunk and says an elephant is like a snake, and so forth.

We know that the elephant is one and whole, but the blind men of the parable do not know the elephant as a single reality; they are blind in more than one sense.

The same problem — the problem of appearance and reality — has been central to Western metaphysics since the beginning of philosophy to the present day. I have previously written about the philosophical antipathy and rivalry between Henri Bergson and Bertrand Russell in the early part of the twentieth century (in Epistemic Space: Mapping Time). Both of these antagonistic figures treated the same problem. Here is Bergson’s version:

There is in this something very like what an artist passing through Paris does when he makes, for example, a sketch of a tower of Notre Dame. The tower is inseparably united to the building, which is itself no less inseparably united to the ground, to its surroundings, to the whole of Paris, and so on. It is first necessary to detach it from all these; only one aspect of the whole is noted, that formed by the tower of Notre Dame. Moreover, the special form of this tower is due to the grouping of the stones of which it is composed; but the artist does not concern himself with these stones, he notes only the silhouette of the tower. For the real and internal organization of the thing he substitutes, then, an external and schematic representation. So that, on the whole, his sketch corresponds to an observation of the object from a certain point of view and to the choice of a certain means of representation.

Now beneath all the sketches he has made at Paris the visitor will probably, by way of memento, write the word “Paris.” And as he has really seen Paris, he will be able, with the help of the original intuition he had of the whole, to place his sketches therein, and so join them up together. But there is no way of performing the inverse operation; it is impossible, even with an infinite number of accurate sketches, and even with the word “Paris” which indicates that they must be combined together, to get back to an intuition that one has never bad, and to give oneself an impression of what Paris is like if one has never seen it.

Henri Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics

And here is Russell’s version (which I previously quoted in Appearance and Reality in Cosmology):

With the naked eye one can see the grain, but otherwise the table looks smooth and even. If we looked at it through a microscope, we should see roughnesses and hills and valleys, and all sorts of differences that are imperceptible to the naked eye. Which of these is the ‘real’ table? We are naturally tempted to say that what we see through the microscope is more real, but that in turn would be changed by a still more powerful microscope. If, then, we cannot trust what we see with the naked eye, why should we trust what we see through a microscope? Thus, again, the confidence in our senses with which we began deserts us.

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Similar difficulties arise when we consider the sense of touch. It is true that the table always gives us a sensation of hardness, and we feel that it resists pressure. But the sensation we obtain depends upon how hard we press the table and also upon what part of the body we press with; thus the various sensations due to various pressures or various parts of the body cannot be supposed to reveal directly any definite property of the table, but at most to be signs of some property which perhaps causes all the sensations, but is not actually apparent in any of them. And the same applies still more obviously to the sounds which can be elicited by rapping the table.

Thus it becomes evident that the real table, if there is one, is not the same as what we immediately experience by sight or touch or hearing. The real table, if there is one, is not immediately known to us at all, but must be an inference from what is immediately known. Hence, two very difficult questions at once arise; namely, (1) Is there a real table at all? (2) If so, what sort of object can it be?

Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, Chapter 1

Bergson later goes on to add, after his exposition of the problem:

“Both empiricists and rationalists are victims of the same fallacy. Both of them mistake partial notations for real parts, thus confusing the point of view of analysis and of intuition, of science and of metaphysics.”

It is almost as though Bergson realized that his own “empiricism” (after a fashion) might be contrasted with Russell’s “rationalism.” This is where the problem of appearance and reality meets the problem of the one and the many. Reality is one; appearance is many. How are we to understand how the one presents itself as many, and how the many are unified in the one?

Bertrand Russell as a young man, when he was engaging in polemics with Bergson.

Bertrand Russell as a young man, when he was engaging in polemics with Bergson.

There are times when the many perspectives on one and the same world seem unproblematic. The case of the blind men and the elephant can be resolved by bringing the blind men back to the elephant and directing them to feel the continuity of the various parts of the elephant with each other. And when many different scientific experiments confirm one and the same theory by testing different aspects of that theory in different ways, but all independently (and reproducibly) confirm one and the same theory, we know that we have one scientific theory that despite its many predictions concerns itself with one and the same world.

Henri-Louis Bergson, 18 October 1859 to 04 January 1941, philosopher and time and duration, very famous in his time but little read today.

Henri-Louis Bergson, 18 October 1859 to 04 January 1941, philosopher and time and duration, very famous in his time but little read today.

There are other times when the unity of the world and of the diverse perspectives upon the world are more problematic. Everyone, I think, is well familiar with the problems posed by competing and incommensurable narratives of what is believed to be the same sequence of events. This difficulty is encapsulated in the pop-culture dichotomy of, “he said/she said,” where the incommensurability is the incommensurability of gendered perspective.

Thomas Nagel's famous paper, 'What is it like to be a bat?' considered the particular perspective that bats have on the world and how it differs from our perspective.

Thomas Nagel’s famous paper, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ considered the particular perspective that bats have on the world and how it differs from our perspective.

I have elsewhere cited Thomas Nagel’s famous paper, “What is it like to be a bat?” (in Addendum on the Origins of Time and What is it like to be a serpent?) and noted that Nagel chose the example of a bat because, as a vertebrate and a mammal it is not all that different from primates (and presumably has experiences of the world not unlike those that primates have of the world), but the bat primarily experiences the world through sonar rather than through sight. That makes the bat very different from a primate, and presumably results in a dramatically different experience of the world — hence, there is something that it is like to be a bat, and this “something” is significantly different from what it is like to be a primate.

There are many ways of seeing the world, and some of these ways do not even involve “seeing.”

There is a sense in which organisms that relate to the world through fundamentally different sensory mechanisms experience a different world. The bat’s world constructed from sonar, the pit viper’s world constructed from infrared-sensing pits, the shark’s world constructed from electroreceptors, and the primate’s world of stereoscopic color vision are, in a sense, different “worlds.” But only “in a sense,” because in another sense these diverse senses reveal the same world, as is apparent when these different organisms with their distinct sensory mechanisms interact — sometimes recognizing each other (which I attempted to describe in The Eye of the Other), sometimes just avoiding each other, while at other times preying on each other or fleeing from predation.

Biodiversity means perceptual and epistemic diversity.

If we can find a way to put these different perceptions of the world together, we will have a much more comprehensive account of the world that that based on the observations of a single species. That is to say, the perspectives of other species, if only we could tap into them, would provide countervailing evidence to lessen our anthropic bias. We can think of these other perspectives as narratives, with each narrative of the world being ontologically derived from the structure of the organism, which involves both the peculiarities of its sensory organs and its functional relationship to its environment.

If we take a naturalistic perspective and assume that the natural world is, unproblematically, as it presents itself to be, with a variety of many distinct species involved in relationships of cooperation and competition, we know that these radically distinct perspectives on the single natural world that hosts us all are in fact fully commensurable. Although no one individual, and no one species, has the synoptic perspective that includes all radically distinct forms of sensory perception, the distinct perspectives have a unity in the unity of nature. (And indeed also a unity of mind, such as I elaborated in Kantian Critters.)

Naturalism, then, implies the commensurability of radically distinct world-narratives that are ecologically integrated even if we cannot understand this integration or experience the world from any perspective other than that common to our species.

That the perspectives of distinct species possess a de facto commensurability despite their profound differences puts the supposedly incommensurable theoretical views of human beings into perspective. It is, of course, the position of Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science that different theoretical models of the world constitute distinct paradigms, and that these paradigms are incommensurable.

The “theories” implicit in the sensory apparatus of any two distinct species are far greater than the difference between any two theories maintained by the same species, though we must entertain the possibility that our ideas give us a dimension of differentiation that does not exist for all species, just as not all species possess sensory organs (as, for example, with micro-organisms), so that the possession of sensory organs also involves a dimension of differentiation from species lacking sensory organs.

The primate brain devotes much of its capacity to the heavy processing demands of stereoscopic color vision. The mollusk brain also processes fairly sophisticated visual stimuli, but it also devotes a significant amount of its capacity to the control of the cells on the surface of its skin, which allows octopi and cuttlefish to produce both brilliant displays and effective camouflage on demand. Given brains structured around these very different cognitive demands, I imagine that primates think and view the world very differently from the way that mollusks think and view the world — though these differences do not prevent the species from interacting, though primates and mollusks don’t interact all that much because of their distinct ecological niches.

If species possessing a cognitive architecture as profoundly different as that represented by primates and mollusks can achieve a de facto commensurability through their common participation in a single biosphere, then the incommensurability of different human points of view does not seem all that bleak.

Ecology is the master world-narrative that unifies that sub-narratives employed by individual species in virtue of their perceptual and cognitive architecture. Ultimately, astrobiology would constitute the universal narrative that would unify the ecological narratives of distinct worlds.

The naturalistic narrative has the power to unify even across species and across worlds. This power may not be particularly evident at present, but in the long term future of our species (if our species does in fact have a long term future) this power will prove to be crucial.

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Wednesday


Narrative can save your life: Scheherazade held the Sultan at a plot point each night and so gained for herself a reprieve to the next day.

In Metaphysical Ecology I introduced a more comprehensive treatment of time into Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems theory. I further extended and refined this metaphysical temporality in Ecological Temporality, and I applied this ecological temporality to the mind in The Temporal Ecology of Mind.

In several posts I have have occasion to comment on the prominent role that the idea of narrative has in contemporary thought. I especially developed this theme in The Totemic Paradigm, in which I contrasted what Walter Fisher in his influential book Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action called the narrative paradigm. While I don’t wish to impugn or belittle Fisher’s conception of the centrality of the narrative paradigm in human affairs, I simply wished to demonstrate that the narrative paradigm alone is not sufficient to understand the forms of human consciousness that have emerged in history.

Now that I have had the occasion to give an exposition to what I call metaphysical ecology and ecological temporality, I can offer a more detailed account of the place of narrative in human civilization.

What my formulations of ecological temporality have made clear to me is that the world functions on several temporal levels, and in so far as the mind that is part of the world reflects the world, the mind too functions on several temporal levels.

An entire metaphysic could be constructed on the interesting consequences for the philosophy of mind from the interactions of the ecological levels of the world with the ecological levels of the world as reflected in the mind, but at present I only want to point out something much simpler. And it is this: the world as we know it consists of many narratives running in parallel at different levels of ecological temporality.

The ecological levels of narrative follow the schema of ecological temporality:

Micro-temporality: stories of the temporal setting of individual consciousness. The perfect exemplar of this is the “stream of consciousness” technique in literature.

Meso-temporality: stories of relations between micro-temporalities or connections between temporal contexts. More obviously, these are stories of social time, and this is the most common format of storytelling. Almost all traditional story telling, including mythology and fables fall into this category. Aesop’s fables are stories set in social time, though the agents are animals rather than human beings. The distinctive thing about mythology is that stories of metaphysical history are given concrete meaning and even individual personality by embodying ideas in particular persons (or heroes or gods) and setting this stories in social time.

Exo-temporality: Stories of links between a temporal setting in which the individual does not have an active role and the individual’s immediate temporal context. These are stories in which the individual strikes out beyond the familiar. Many heroic narratives take this form.

Macro-temporality: Stories of the historical era in which individuals live, which can reach from eras of human history through the life of entire civilizations and beyond to the greatest expanses of time investigated by natural science.

Metaphysical temporality: Stories of the whole of metaphysical history in which the individual and other lesser temporalities (Meso-temporality, Exo-temporality, and Macro-temporality) are embedded. Mythological stories are indirectly (by way of meso-temporal stories) narratives set in metaphysical temporality. Cosmogonies, religious cosmologies, and philosophical narratives of the world entire take place in metaphysical time.

These many stories overlap and intersect like Wittgensteinian family resemblances. While in some cases these stories can be isolated and are independent of all other stories, and of stories on another levels of narrative temporality, more often the stories touch on each other, if only tangentially. The traditional intertextuality of some literary genres — Aurthurian romances, for example, which have borrowed heavily from each other, sometimes taking characters, sometimes scenes, and sometimes entire stories or cycles of stories and re-telling them — can exploit this tangential relationship among stories in order to enrich the world of the storyteller, so that like walking through an Gothic cathedral the rich ornamentation might catch your interest at any point and lead you in a new direction if you allow yourself to be so distracted.

It is entirely possible that an individual might entertain, at one and the same time, a narrative of their own consciousness, a different narrative of the immediate social situation in which they find themselves, another narrative that tells the story of how distinct societies interrelate (over both time and space), a narrative unique to the great sweeps of historical time, and lastly another narrative, an eschatological narrative perhaps, that encompasses the whole of all the preceding even while going beyond it, i.e., a narrative of eternity. These stories do not contradict each other because each takes place at a different level of ecological temporality, and this gives us a structure in which to organize the different narratives employed to encompass the world.

It would be an interesting exercise to offer an exposition of these differing narratives of ecological temporality based on the work of Hayden White (especially his book Metahistory). Those who are familiar with White’s work on narrative will immediate see how complex this task would be, as White makes a number of subtle distinctions among the literary tropes employed to tell a story (especially the stories of history). I will leave this to any other interested party who cares to take up the challenge.

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Saturday


Today I thought of a question that doubles as a thought experiment. I’ve already posted this to Grand Strategy Annex, but I liked it so much I decided to post it here also.

Imagine that you approach a table with a book lying closed on it. Your name is on the cover. It is the book of your life. What do you do?

Do you sit down and read it through carefully, page by page?

Do you skip to the end to find out what happens?

Do do skim the book for the interesting bits?

Do you only read the dirty parts?

Do you leave the book closed and walk away?

Do you hesitate over it, but take it with you, in case you decide to read it later?

Do you destroy it or throw it away?

Responses are strongly encouraged. I would really like to know how different people would react to this counter-factual opportunity.

This thought experiment is not intended as a question about free will and determinism, but it can be taken that way if the reader is particularly struck by these implications. The existence of a book detailing your entire life implies determinism, but, if taken purely hypothetically, as a thought experiment, suppose that there is such a book, and that it lies closed before you. You have the freedom to pick it up and peruse it, or to leave it undisturbed, which seems to imply free will. If you read the book, it must include a description of our choosing to read the book; if you pass on the opportunity to read the book of your life, its contents are unknown and irrelevant. Presumably, if the book were a complete account of your life, it would include a description of your refusal to read the book, but if the book were not actually a description of your life, but was only so placed and introduced to you as a kind of intellectual provocation, its contents may have no relationship at all to your life.

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From Rituals to Stories

19 November 2010

Friday


A few weeks ago in Take Comfort in Rituals I offered a commentary on the then-current Starbucks slogan that had been emblazoned across their many locations. This “ritual” campaign did not last long, as I noticed that the slogans disappeared not long after I wrote about them. Now a new series of slogans have appeared at Starbucks, and it looks like the marketing team has made the transition from mythology to narrative, as they have gone from promoting rituals to promoting stories.

In so far as a myth (embodied in a ritual) is a special case, a particular example, of a narrative, the passage from mythology to narrative represents a passage to a greater level of generality, and therefore possibly also a connection to the perennial, universal truths of the human condition. And what could a marketer desire more than to establish some connection between a brand and the universal truths of the human condition?

In The Totemic Paradigm I discussed the significant and growing role of narrative theory in many aspects of contemporary thought, from analytical philosophy of mind to psychotherapy. It would not surprise me in the least if someone on the Starbucks marketing team has tapped into this vein of thought, and in so far as popular culture learns from serious scholarship, we are the better for it. George Lucas struggled with his screenplay for the original Star Wars film until he happened upon Joseph Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces, which provided a template for the schematic science fiction hero story that he then went on to write.

While it may seem cynical or crass for the Starbucks marketing team to expropriate narrative theory for selling coffee — or, rather, selling the experience of drinking coffee — if our experience of coffee can be reconfigured and recast as more of a cultural experience and less of a consumer experience, we are probably the better off for it.

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A Naturalistic Sermon


The Stories that We Tell

Today is Palm Sunday. What does Palm Sunday mean, or what ought Palm Sunday to mean, from a naturalistic perspective? Perhaps even to ask the question sounds odd. Let me try to explain.

Recently when I was working on Technical Ecstasy: Futurism and Dystopia and Fear of the Future in which I discussed several science fiction films and television series, I found that I was asking myself, “Why are these stories meaningful for us?” and “What do these stories mean to us?” The answer to the question is not immediately apparent. Clearly, the stories are told, and clearly also they resonate with the public; their popularity tells us this much.

There is a sense in which the effort to elaborately place a story in a context utterly distinct from the world that we know alienates us from the story. But the same could be said for the world of fairy tales, in which animals talk and men are transformed into stone, and the like. And yet we understand immediately the relation of the world of the fairy tale to the world in which we actually live.

Similar considerations apply with stories from the distant past, and Bible stories that have become institutionalized as holidays are stories from the distant past that are, in some respects, so different from the world we know today that their relevance is open to question. On the other hand, we again immediately recognize our world and ourselves in the world of the past. Because we recognize our world in the world of the past, we can, at least to some degree, identify with the past, and because we can identify with the past it becomes meaningful for us.

The Meanings of Palm Sunday

A story such as that told of Palm Sunday has many layers, and therefore many meanings. A Google search on “Palm Sunday” returns several obvious resources, including a nice summary on Wikipedia and an entry from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia. The latter opens not with the story itself, but by situating the holiday in the context of the ecclesiastical calendar, the Christian liturgical year, as follows: “The sixth and last Sunday of Lent and beginning of Holy Week, a Sunday of the highest rank, not even a commemoration of any kind being permitted in the Mass.” This is a rather formal evocation of Palm Sunday, and notably lacks the human interest of the narrative core of the holiday.

The core of the story from a narrative standpoint is the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem. A triumph is itself a many-layered and manifoldly meaningful symbol. The Wikipedia article cites Christ’s “triumphant” entry into Jerusalem, and other sources use this language as well; however, Christ did not enter Jerusalem on the back of a white charger, but rather on the back of a borrowed donkey, and he was honored by readily available palm fronds and not by conspicuous luxuries.

In Roman antiquity, a Triumph was a special procession through Rome awarded to a victorious general, and came, in later Christian usage, to be called a pompa diaboli, that is to say, the devil’s procession. In the eyes of the earliest Christians, the official pomp, splendor, and spectacle of the Roman Empire was diabolical. Thus to call Christ’s entry into Jerusalem a “Triumph” would have been, in Christ’s own day, very much a “loaded” description of the event. Nevertheless, Christ did enter into Jerusalem, and was celebrated and honored by the people of the city; Palm Sunday was a triumph, and it was not a triumph. The symbolism, to borrow the language of Tillich, contains an element of self-negation.

The name of the holiday — Palm Sunday — references not the narrative of the holiday, but its most prominent symbol: the palm frond. In Christianity’s spread to temperate climes, palm fronds became difficult to find, and many different forms of greenery were substituted. If it is to be understood that the essence of the story is retained even while yew, box, and willow were substituted for palms, then, by the same token, we might speculate that the ancient pagan rituals inevitably involving seasonal display of greenery (an ancient custom throughout Europe), also in a sense retain their essence even when the story of Christ is substituted for the pre-Christian stories that were the occasion of spring festivals across the Old World.

A Lesson for Palm Sunday

If the stories that we find meaningful demonstrate for us, with a palpable immediacy, the presentness of the past, and make it possible for us to feel that the men who inhabit these stories and the situations that they faced are, in essence, like our own, one lesson we ought to take from this is the corollary to the presentness of past: the pastness of the present. Now, this is admittedly an awkward term. Probably it would be better to find a more elegant formulation, but for the moment this will do.

If we can feel the relevancy of meaningful events from the past for today, we ought also to be able to, by way of the a priori imagination, feel the relevancy of the meaningful events of the present for the past. History works in one direction, and while the men of the past cannot learn from what we have experienced, but we can learn in both directions — past to present and present to past — an in doing so we can extend our understanding beyond conventional categories.

The exercise of the intellect is the highest calling of man. Today, perhaps contrary to expectation, it is little cultivated. Why contrary to expectation? One might suppose that, given the near universality of literacy and the availability of information resources that there is no excuse not to cultivate the intellect, but what we find instead is the tiresome repetition of the false, the misleading and the conventional.

We can do better than this — much better. And one way that we can do better is to push our a priori imagination to the limits of its possibility in attempting to understand points of view distinct from that egocentric point of view native and natural to each one of us. To this end, thinking through history from both directions, thinking of the present in terms of the past and the past in terms of the present, is one place to start.

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